College Networks

Breaking Through

Helping Colleges Advance Low-Skilled Adults into Careers

Strengthening community college efforts to help low-skilled adults enter and succeed in occupational and technical degree programs that lead to family-supporting careers.

Nate Anderson
Senior Director
617.728.4446 x213

College Networks

Breaking Through works within college networks, following its four high-leverage strategies—accelerated learning, comprehensive support services, labor market payoffs, and aligning programs for low-skilled adults. These networks include state-level college networks in Kentucky, Michigan, and North Carolina; a network of six tribal colleges; an English language learner-focused demonstration project in South Texas; and a state policy initiative.

State-level College Networks


The Kentucky Community & Technical College System has established a statewide Breaking Through network consisting of three colleges: Owensboro Community & Technical College, Gateway Community & Technical College, and Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College. OCTC, a founding member of Breaking Through and a national leader in innovative approaches to improving the outcomes of low-skilled adult students, serves as the “mentor” to the other colleges. With OCTC's assistance, Gateway and Southeast have developed allied health career pathways and implemented a number of Breaking Through strategies, including paired courses, contextualized curricula, and improved student advising. As the state lead on this project, the Kentucky system office has coordinated efforts at the three colleges, organized professional development training sessions, and established a centralized, system-level data collection process.


The Michigan network focuses on connecting dislocated workers with innovative postsecondary programs. It consists of six leading community colleges: Grand Rapids Community College, Henry Ford Community College, Lake Michigan College, Mott Community College, Macomb Community College, and St. Clair Community College. The network was convened by the Michigan Community College Association and is supported by Jobs for the Future and the National Council for Workforce Education. It promotes institutional and system changes to improve the postsecondary outcomes of Michigan’s low-skilled and low-income workers. With the goal of increasing institutional capacity and statewide momentum for occupational pathway redesign, the Michigan network engages in the following activities:

  • Convening peer-learning meetings that focus on disseminating best practices
  • Integrating Breaking Through models into the comprehensive state strategy for student success
  • Contributing to the implementation of the state’s longitudinal data system
  • Supporting efforts to reform the state’s adult education system
  • Strengthening relationships with employers of low-skilled adults
  • Initiating ties with Native-American two-year colleges across the state
  • Providing technical assistance to individual colleges
  • Developing policy recommendations to inform the governor and state legislature

North Carolina

Breaking Through’s North Carolina network has been developing innovative strategies to connect low-skilled adults with education and training since 2006. A grant from the North Carolina GlaxoSmithKline Foundation supported program development and implementation at six colleges:

  • Davidson County Community College
  • Durham Technical Community College
  • Forsyth Technical Community College
  • Pamlico Community College
  • Pitt Community College
  • South Piedmont Community College

Five of those colleges (Davidson, Forsyth, Pamlico, Pitt, and South Piedmont) received subsequent funding from the U.S. Department of Education’s Ready for College initiative to expand their innovative strategies to connect out-of-school youth to GED programs and college. Durham Tech and Pamlico also received support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to scale up their Breaking Through efforts.

With support from The Walmart Foundation, Central Piedmont, Davidson, Durham Tech, and South Piedmont community colleges are scaling up their Breaking Through programs and the North Carolina network is expanding to additional colleges. The College of the Albemarle, Caldwell Community College, and Fayetteville Community College have received planning grants to develop career pathways using the initiative’s high-leverage strategies. Breaking Through is also working closely with the North Carolina Community College System to leverage and align the work of these colleges with the state’s efforts to develop integrated pathways for low-skilled adults.

Tribal Colleges

Recognizing the skills deficiencies faced by many Native-American students, The Walmart Foundation is supporting an expansion of Breaking Through to the nation’s 36 tribal colleges and universities. In March 2011, JFF and the American Indian Higher Education Consortium awarded planning grants to six colleges. These colleges are developing Breaking Through implementation plans and initial student cohorts while integrating into the national Breaking Through peer-learning network. Tribal CollegesBreaking Through aims to create career pathways that lead to jobs on or near the tribal lands on which students live. This is particularly important, given unemployment rates that are several times higher in tribal communities than the national average.

South Texas

In partnership with the Valley Initiative for Development and Advancement and Lower Rio Workforce Solutions, South Texas College is using the Breaking Through framework to develop career pathways for English language learners who also have low native-language literacy. Pathways are being implemented in health care and green construction, and a regional network of border colleges and Workforce Investment Boards is being developed to replicate them.

Breaking Through State Policy Initiative

This Breaking Through strand is part of the Adult Degree Completion Commitment, funded by the Lumina Foundation for Education. It targets adult students with some college credit who reenter postsecondary education needing considerable remediation. These students represent a significant and growing segment of the adult student population, particularly dislocated workers who are long removed from their college experience, who have earned nonacademic credits, or who enter college needing considerable remediation.

Breaking Through works within and across Kentucky, Michigan, and North Carolina to develop and implement policy changes that will remove barriers and ultimately improve the credential attainment rates for this target population. During the first year of this four-year initiative launched in 2010, the focus is on building high-impact state workgroups and using a policy audit template to identify areas for reform. JFF anticipates that the resulting policy framework will be built within four key content areas: data and performance measurement; funding and finance; incentives for innovation; and acceleration to completion. The three participating states will also share with one another innovative ideas that have the potential to improve student success rates.